“An ideal is something we believe is right, but it may not be practical. Whereas an attitude should be something that we can put into practice right from where we are.”
TKV Desikachar

What Are We Seeking?

Christopher Alexander on Centers as Beings

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“… every living structure is composed of thousands of pictures of the eternal self.

A being is a small thing. It is a name for a center which is connected to the I … But, unlike the phrase ‘living center’ or ‘living structure.,’ the word ‘being’ draws attention to the nearly animate quality that appears when something is connected to the I.

… Each living center is, to some extent, an I-like picture of the self. The more life a given living center has, the more I-like it is: the more it si a picture of the self. As centers are built, strengthened, and toughened, the larger structures which contain them then, too, become more I-like. In short, the recursion, which allows us to build living structure in the world, not only makes living centers more and more strong. It also causes the appearance, somehow, of pictures of the self, throughout every nook and cranny of a region of space.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

 

 

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Christopher Alexander on “The I”

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“Some experiences of I, within the things of the world, and especially within the things of nature, is shared, I think, by every human being, in some degree … I look at the waterfall and say I find it pleasing

In a second, also mild, version of this experience, I enjoy the waterfall, and I feel a stirring of some relationship to it…

A further stage of this experience occurs, if I find the relationship strong …. I experience this relationship as somehow interior to me … I experience a strong emotional linkage between myself and the … waterfall.

In a fourth version, I may even feel that the waterfall … touches the core of me

In a stronger version yet, I begin to feel some actual identification with the waterfall. I experience that it is profoundly related to my being … I identify with the waterfall in some fashion … that my own self and the waterfall are somehow related … I am aware that in some refreshing way, the waterfall – more than a hamburger bun, say, or today’s morning newspaper – nourishes me, releases me, refreshes me …

There is a stronger version yet … Reports from (so-called) primitive societies describe the way that people not only identified with trees or with the forest, but endowed the entities of the forest, the rocks of the ocean, with spirit. I believe this was an expression of a situation where people felt, or experienced a presence, as being in the tree or waterfall.

A still stronger form of such identification also existed in primitive culture … when people of the culture reified the identification by giving it explicit substance … for instance when a California Yurok Indian made an explicit identity between himself and a seal or an eagle at the time of adulthood, and from then on wore that animal’s skin, took the name of the animal …

There is an even stronger version .. when we recognize explicitly, and feel that our own self exists in the beach, or in a wave, or in a bush. And a stronger still … when we experience the relationship with the waterfall so that it is not merely that I identify with the waterfall, but that in some fashion I am the waterfall: not merely identification but actual identity … My I is really in the waterfall. My self and the waterfall are not merely similar, but it feels as if they are the same, as if both are parts of one thing.

Here we begin to enter metaphysics. This experience is no longer merely a statement about psychology. It is now asserting that the I which I experience as my own self, is in some fashion the same thing as the I which I feel and see in the waterfall … I experience nature as if everything in me and without me is made of the same stuff.

For every artist, every builder, this must be true: as I work I must try to create a structure which appears like I to me … It is this mobilizing of my self in the great work which chills me, devastates me, wakes me to the bone.

… In human terms it is down to earth. It is the core of the earth and child in me …

What it touches is beyond reason, and before reason. It may be a connection to some realm where I no longer am, and where I shall always be.

That is our task, as makers of things: to mobilize – to open – this eye to the storm.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

 

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Christopher Alexander on a Real Relatedness

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I was this person who’s relatedness was damaged by dead structures (physical and metaphysical) of the world. It makes me wonder if being at Bhudeva is a phase of cleansing and re-nourishing? Will I one day look back at it as my “great retreat”? I acknowledge, I want to see, I am willing to experience … and I am just starting to feel. Just yesterday I was talking to Judit about my expected “spring allergy month” … and how I view it as a panic response coming from somewhere deep inside? Could my allergic response be an expression of a shocking awakening and realization of the vitality and immensity of … life?

” … the relationship between people and the world which makes it appear that some parts of the world have more relationship to our own selves and others less should be understood as something real …

I wish to say that the relatedness through which I feel that my own self and the tree in the field are directly connected is the most fundamental relation that there is. I wish to say that it is in this relatedness … that I learn, feel, understand, that I am of the world … Far from being a minor cognitive resemblance between me and the tree, this relatedness that exists between us and the living things in the world occurs, I think, because of a fundamental connection between our own self and something which is in those things.

… Thus it is only in connection with these living things that I am fully real … In a place surrounded by alien living structures where I do not feel such a feeling of relatedness, my actual relatedness to the world is interrupted or destroyed. Then I myself am not as real. My reality if damaged and inhibited.

… Further, I want to draw attention to the role of buildings in maintaining the existence of this relatedness. … it is my view that our ability to experience the relatedness with nature or with buildings is damaged when we live in a world of objects and structures that are non-living structures. Thus, the modern person who ‘loves’ nature and goes to visit  nature is not able to enter this relatedness with nature as easily, because the daily proximity with so many non-living structures – freeways, motels, traffic lights, office buildings – dominates our awareness, cauterizes the person and the person’s capacity to enter in this relatedness, to see it and feel it.

… If I am right, it is the presence of living structure in our built world that decides the extent of our relatedness with earth. Buildings which lack living structure not only destroy our ability to feel relatedness through them. They also inhibit, somehow and reduce the ability we have to feel relatedness at all, even in nature – places where we would otherwise feel it naturally.

… When the Hopi chief says that he looks out and sees the desert and the stars, and that he and his people are related to them, we take this, we listen to it, we love it; but it is no longer entirely real for us. We listen to it as poetry … But, of course we consider it as fiction, the thinking of primitives. It has not occurred to us, that what the Indian chief says might actually be true. Literally true. That the relation he and his people spoke about, and feel, between themselves and all things, was a relationship that is actually there, but one that we no longer see, or acknowledge, or are willing to experience, because in our cosmology it is not understandable that such a thing could be true.

… I wish to claim that there is such a thing as an ‘I,’ lying behind matter, and that all living structure (though certainly not all structure) is connected, necessarily with this ‘I.’ I shall claim too, that on examination, this relatedness will turn out to be a part of physics.

In order to sustain this claim, we must begin by grasping it as something rooted in experience … we may then go on to ask what kind of physical explanation might make sense of it. But with must start with verifiable experience.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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Christopher Alexander on Devotional Atmosphere

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“As a matter of observation, it is simply true to say that many of the most beautiful works of art in the world’s history, and many of the most profoundly living structures, large and small, that human beings have created, have been created within … a … mystical religious context.

… What, then, about the modern works … which are not inspired … by a belief in God? … I do argue that these works touch a modern wellspring that arose in history to inspire the works which came from mystical traditions.

… If these great works from all periods of history, including even our own, shared a certain cosmological or spiritual background, then that background may have information for us, may give us some hint about the conditions which are necessary for the creation of living structure.

… All these works, I think, stand out because we experience in them a special quality of relatedness … It is the relatedness to Self. It is that relatedness between our individual self, and the matter of the universe, which is touched and illuminated.

… a craftsman from the early Christian period … might have told us that he was making the church, the stone, the window, or the column ‘for the glory of God’.

… a 15th century Sufi woman weaving a carpet or painting tiles … would have replied … that she and her colleagues were seeking to become ‘drunk’ in God … to lose themselves …

Mother Ann, the spiritual leader of the Shakers, gave carpenters and cabinet makers this advice: ‘Make it as though you were going to live a thousand years, and as though you were going to die tomorrow.’

If we had asked a master carpenter of a zen temple … might have simply answered that the work itself was what mattered: ‘When I eat, I eat; when I drink, I drink; when I plane the board, I only plane the board.’ But there too after careful inquiry, and if we managed to break through his desire to avoid talking about nonsense, we would have found that his main purpose was to lose himself and become one with the ‘principle of things.’

… all these teachings had certain essentials in common. They all emphasized the need to abandon concern with one’s own ego … the importance of hard work and repeated simple, even menial tasks. Above all, they all emphasized the desire to reach God, or the ground of all things … the task of making was to be understood as a spiritual exercise

While one works as an artist or a builder it is hard to see wholeness. To see wholeness requires purity of mind, because the thoughts, mental constructs, theories, ideas, and images one has all interfere with perception of wholeness, and make it difficult to see.

Historically, belief in God worked – I think – by focusing attention on wholeness. By asking the believer to concentrate on God … it helped the artist dissolve his images … and focus on reality as it is – in other words on the structure of the wholeness as it is.

… There was too, the matter of pace. The essence of these works, made in a devotional atmosphere, was that the maker had time, the mind was concentrated. The step by step nature … was made possible …

In some form I cannot articulate perfectly, I believe that the connection between the creation of living structure and ancient and mystical religion goes further. I doubt if we shall plumb the full extent to which a living structure is created until we have thoroughly explored and understood just what these ancient builders did, in what frame of mind that did it and with what attitude.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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Christopher Alexander on Ultra Mechanistic

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For more on this dear-to-me subject see Robert Pirsig’s Lila and the work of Rupert Sheldrake … and this is just the opening of the book

“Scientists often like to say that the materialist view of present-day science is potentially consistent with early any view of ethics or religion because it says nothing about these subjects.
Strictly speaking, the logic of this view can be upheld. But what governs people’s view of the world is not only logic, but also what is implied by this logic … Strictly speaking the facts of physics and astrophysics do not imply that the universe is meaningless. But the way these facts are presently drawn, the larger conception of the world which we have formed at the same time we have been forming our physics, does suggest – even strongly imply – that the world is meaningless …

Indeed, tacit assumptions have entered our picture of the world so pervasively that it is from them that we have got the picture of the universe that is distressing us. Though they were originally inspired by mechanistic philosophy, they themselves go far beyond the strict discoveries of science. It is these beyond-mechanistic or ultra-mechanistic assumptions which control much of what we say and think …

These ultra-mechanistic assumptions about matter – not strictly justified by mechanistic science itself, but inspired by it and encouraged by it – have shaped our attitude to art and architecture and society and environment.

TACIT ASSUMPTION 1: What is true, is only those facts which can be represented as lifeless mechanisms.

[As scientists … we focus on models … to … help us understand what is going on. But the careful use of models does not require us, also, to inject gratuitous assumptions about the inertness of the models into our thoughts, or into the aura of thought with which we surround the models. Most scientists will tell you that you are entitled to hold whatever extra beliefs you wish. But the ‘extras’ will be characterized as beliefs, thus excluding them once again from the world-picture, while the material in the scientific journals will be characterized as hypothesis about fact.

As a result, though the use of Cartesian models in science is beautiful, and useful, and powerful, it does not yet provide us with a wholly accurate picture of the way things are.  Its use means that vital aspects of reality, especially those which we can only see accurately through feelings – such as the degree of life in buildings – can be represented only in a crude and distorted fashion.

Our society is corrupted by this approach. The tacit assumption that what is true is only that which can be represented as a mechanical model, almost prohibits us from seeing life around us. Love, feeling, faith, art … have become second class citizens in the world of ideas.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 2: Matters of value [in architecture] are subjective.

[Before the age of enlightenment there was, in most cultures, some group of values to which one could appeal … In some it was thought to be ‘God’, in others ‘ancestors’, in others ‘tradition’ or ‘law.’ Whatever the source, there was no doubt, at that time, that there was indeed a (partially) uniform source of value widely understood throughout the culture, and of such a kind that early any act might be judged against it, inspired by it.

Today the situation is different indeed … It is socially acceptable to state values publicly – but only so long as they are clearly presented as matters of opinion, hence as matters of private value? Few people today will dare to assert that some value they perceive is in any sense actually true.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 3: Modern conceptions of human liberty require that all values be viewed as subjective. The subjective nature of value gives the private striving of each individual person … the same weight. Attempts to put value on an objective footing are to be viewed with suspicion.

[During the 18th and 19th centuries, European and American imperialism created a view of the world in which many people on earth were considered ignorant, and in which it was taken for granted that the views of white Victorian gentlemen were correct. At the end of the 19th century the new discipline of anthropology was gradually able to attack this Victorian point of view by establishing the idea that each culture is coherent in its own terms …

In the last decades of the 20th century this movement was extended to protect the rights of many groups … handicapped people, people with various sexual preferences, subcultures of ethnic or religious particularity, groups of particular age … So, by the end of the 20th century, the liberality and freedom of the centuries early years had helped to create an atmosphere of pluralism in which nearly ‘anything goes,’ and in which it had become almost impossible to assert the rightness of any value …

Thus the idiosyncratic and private view of value … has led to the assumption that value, valuation, and judgement and taste, are so deeply embedded in the realms of individual rights that they almost cannot be seen as based on an objective reality.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 4: The basic matter of the world is neutral with regard to value. Matter is inert. The universe is made of inert material which blindly follows laws of combination and transformation.

[… In the 19th century physicists thought that the world was made of little atoms, like billiard balls … Today we have a conception of ultimate matter which is vastly more interesting, where particles are more like whirlpools of energy …

However, the physicist’s idea that this matter or energy is essentially lifeless and moves blindly according to the laws of its process, has not changed.

Sir James Jeans’s words ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine,’ written in 1930, have, so far, remained a beautiful and inspiring, but still empty, promise … our cosmology itself … remains unaltered …]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 5:  Matter and mind, the objective outer world and the subjective inner world are taken to be two entirely different realms, different in kind and utterly disconnected.

[… The idea that the outer world can be thought of as a structure which is distinct from ourselves, the divisions of the world into mind and matter, goes back at least to the scholastics of the 14th century … combined with the assumption that we can only reach truth by distinguishing objective (agreed upon) outer reality from individual (and not agreed-upon) inner reality, is the very foundation of modern science.  It is the idea that observations and experiments must be made independent of the observer.

The first 20th century cracks in the iceberg of this assumption arrived within physics itself. They came with Bohr‘s and Heisenberg‘s demonstrations that completely observer-free observations cannot exist at the level of photons and electrons … But today, seventy years after Heisenberg, mind and self still to not have a status in the world-picture that is comparable to the status of the underlying entities of 20th century physics. Even among the scientists who accept the existence of cognitive structures, it is still generally accepted that a cognitive structure is an artefact of neurological activity.

… the self cannot itself be included into the larger view of the universe … Yet self is what we experience of ourselves. How then, could the universe seem comfortable to us?]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 6: Art is an intense and powerful social phenomenon, but one that has no deep importance in the physical scheme of things, and therefore no basic role in the structure of the universe.

[… many would insist that art is important, vital … A mechanistic cosmology makes it difficult to formulate the idea that a building, or a painting, or a piece of music could have ay inherent value. At best … they might be based on social realism (ascribing functional importance to works which help society), or psychological realism (describing the value of works of art in terms which appeal to human emotion).

These ideas are deeply conflicted …]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 7: Ornament and function [in a building] are separate and unrelated categories.

[Why is this a cosmological matter? It had its origin in the 19th century, when ornament became something to be applied, not something arising organically from its context. Adolf Loos, trying to overcome a spurious ad disconnected attitude to ornament, began the early 20th century revolt against irrelevant and decadent ornament … he argued … ‘ornament is a crime‘ … By mid-2oth cetury, later versions of this assumption then said, essentially, that all ornament should be removed from buildings =, and that their geometry should be derived from function. … what is practical is only mechanical … any ornament or form which is not mechanical, is removable, unnecessary …

Mid-century purity lasted until about 1970, when architects started again, like builders of old, bringing in ornament and shape out of sheer enjoyment. But even then … the conceptual split caused by our mechanistic world-picture still exist. There is a functioning part (the practical part), and an image part (the art part). In some of the latest buildings,built during the last three decades of the 20th century, this image part, because of the conceptual context, became truly arbitrary and absurd.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 8: At a profound level, architecture is irrelevant. The task of building has no special importance, except in so far as it contributed to practical function through engineering, or to material wealth through image.

[Few people would willingly admit that they make this assumption …

Few contemporary architects would reject the use of a building program [that defines different numbers of square feet to different functions]; few lay people would question it either. It is the norm. Yet their acceptance of this norm (and this is only one tiny example) means that real beauty, real life, are pushed into a subsidiary position while the building program, more concerned with efficiency of administration than with life, stays in a higher position.

It is reasonable to conclude that architecture is viewed as irrelevant. A society in which people routinely do something different from that which creates life or beauty, cannot be said to care about life and beauty.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 9: The intuition that something profound is happening in a great work of art is, in scientific terms, meaningless.

[… By default our cosmology relegates art to the status of a interesting psychological phenomenon. Certainly it does not allow art equal status with the awe-inspiring realities of the atoms, or of the galactic universe.

This it not to say that scientists, like others, do not have instincts which make them feel the deep importance that a work of art can have. But, scientifically speaking, that is only a vague instinct at best. So far, it has no place in the body of thoughts and concepts which make up our fundamental picture of the world.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 10: The instinct that there is some kind of deeper meaning in the world is scientifically useless. It has to be ignored as a subject of serious scientific discussion.

[That is what our scientific civilization has been telling us for three to four hundred years. Yet it is hard to deny that many of us have instincts about deeper meaning in the world. The experience may come, perhaps, as a result of love, as a result of gazing at the ocean, at a small flower.

The official position of 20-th century scientific philosophy said, explicitly, that science is neutral: it neither confirms nor denies the instinct that this experience is important … However, the actual state of mind encouraged by our current scientific cosmology is not neutral but negative … The assumption therefore exists – nearly always tacit, rarely explicit – that experiences, ideas, which might lead to a feeling of profound meaning in the world are scientifically empty, and best kept at arm’s length, away from the body of precise thought about the world.]

I believe these ten assumptions do exist tacitly throughout our everyday lives today. Although thousands of modern books and poems and paintings have helped people assert and affirm their sense of meaning in the world, the world-picture itself, the scientific world-picture, continues to assert the blind meaninglessness of the physical matter in the world, and of the physical matter we ourselves are made of.

[… Suppose a person tells you that he believes the earth is round, not flat. However, you notice that this person has a surprising reluctance to go far to the east, or far to the west. No matter what he says, you may wonder if after all, this person does not believe the earth is flat.

… No matter what people say, they often continue to behave as if these assumptions are true. There is no practical certainty attached to the other more spiritual views, which lead directly to different behavior; so once again the residue of behavior suggests that the ten assumptions are what is, in fact, controlling our mental picture of ourselves and of the universe.]

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

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